The Devil’s Playground (1976)
A contextual introduction to Fred Schepisi’s first feature ‘The Devil’s Playground’ (1976), from Olympia Baron, Curatorial Officer, AFI Research Collection, RMIT Culture.
The Devil’s Playground opens in Autumn 1953 with a sense of calm, the camera moving as if controlled by the season’s breeze-like nature, drifting across the silky surface of a lake. As the scene unfolds, almost explodes, we watch the swell and movement of a large group of boys playing about in the water. We witness a cacophony of naked bodies jumping and leaping around across all directions within the frame; splashing water and laughter; wet surfaces erupting and frothing like innocent, mischievous science experiments gone awry.
This brief opening sequence in Schepisi’s The Devil’s Playground is a giddy and playful introduction to the film’s thematic core. The scene recalls Matisse’s painting Dance (1910), which captures a collective moment of freedom and joy as naked figures hold hands and whirl around in space. The Devil’s Playground, much like Matisse’s painting, speaks to the primordial human desire for connection and not, as the film’s title might seem to suggest, a place of evil or wrong-doing.
At almost 50 years of age, Schepisi’s film is a timeless depiction of the human body and all the pleasure and pain it endures from adolescence to old age.
Human connection is sought by almost all the characters – spiritual and intellectual as well as physical. The film returns to this theme again and again, from the larger arc of the narrative and the self-exploration of the characters to the way the camera captures physical gestures and the texture of water and light, caressing and coaxing the audience to recall its own body and mind at such a young age.
As we celebrate two decades of the Australian Film Institute Research Collection at RMIT University, we also acknowledge the importance of preserving and recording a national screen industry and its audiences. By capturing the broader history of film criticism and film culture in Australia and abroad we promote a unique and multifaceted understanding of society across different time periods and continents.
The AFI Research Collection invites you to join us at the Capitol for the screening of this Australian film classic and to celebrate with us 20 fabulous years of (RMIT) student, public and academic engagement.